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Wednesday, May 18, 2011

A is for Aiding, Abetting, and Accountability

This week of Jewish News features two events which I believe feature an underlying factor: lack of accountability, . The first event was an emergency campaign to raise $50,000 for the boys in Japan. The second was the sentencing of W. Runge.

In the latter case, the defendant was accused of deceiving the state in procuring tax credits for film, pleaded guilty, and then proceeded to set up a now defunct blog slandering the judge and prosecution, accusing them of impropriety, political conspiracy, and anti-semitism. Her story and words were featured on the Chazak Hotline and in Jewish publications, including the Jewish Star (see Shining a Light on Iowa for some rather grotesque charges again "Iowa"). While her story and accusations certainly didn't receive the press of other ongoing stories, the underlying themes were the same.


This is a very difficult case for the court. Here is a defendant who has no prior criminal history, who has a family, and who isn't normally a candidate the court would consider as a candidate for incarceration. However, this defendant not just before her plea of guilty, but even after her plea of guilty, has not taken responsibility for her behavior. There is nothing muddying the waters about that. And your statement here today is not genuine and not sincere. What is sincere is the things you said out of the courtroom, out of your probable perception that it would make its way to the courtroom, because there is no reason not to be truthful there in that setting. And it that setting, you have attacked the judges who have presided in your case, you've attacked the prosecutors, you've blamed this on anti-semitism, you have blamed this on some sort of political conspiracy, and you have not taken responsibility for what you did.

And what you did was a felony. It was a criminal class C felony. It is considered a very serious crime by the Iowa Legislature. It was an attempt to defraud the people of the state of Iowa. And one of the most important considerations for the court in determining an appropriate sentence is to. . . it's not one of. . . it's the guiding principals for the court to choose a sentence that will both provide a maximum opportunity for your rehabilitation and also deter the commission of this offense by others. This cannot happen by placing someone on probation who does not accept responsibility for what she did, who publicly proclaimed that what she did was not wrong, and it certainly will not deter others from doing that.

This is a case, that in my judgement, calls out for the court to send a message to you and a message to others who would engage in this kind of behavior that it is not accepted, that it is criminal, and it won't be tolerated.

Whether at some point in time I might be willing to reconsider my judgement in this case is open to question. But for right now, at this moment in time, based on what you did and, again, your complete, what I would call arrogant, defiant, disclaiming responsibility, this in my judgement is an appropriate sentence. For the reasons that I just said, you are sentenced to an indeterminate term of incarceration not to exceed 10 years, you are accessed fine, the mandatory minimum fine of $1000 along with the applicable surcharge. I'm going to suspend your sentence because of your incarceration. . . etc.

In the case of the boys in Japan, the emergency campaign sought to raise $50,000 this week in order to pay a fine for Yaakov Yosef in order that he Japanese authorities consider transferring him to Israel. While other Jewish publications had previously published other accounts of the boys' story, the current account reads as such:

Japan. A strange and foreign land, geographically and ideologically. A country whose crime rate is exceptionally low due to its merciless treatment of criminals and even suspected criminals, whose penal system includes harsh labor camps and prisons. A place where two of Acheinu Bnei Yisroel are incarcerated for over two and half years through no fault of their own.

"Through no fault of their own." In each and every case I've highlighted in the past few years, the underlying theme of Jewish media is "though not fault of his/her/their own. It is a witch hunt, the product of anti-semitism, the result of a cruel penal system (never mind that Hashem commands societies to establish courts of law and seek justice).

I don't any particular issue with a kehilla stepping forward to help accused and/or convicted Jewish criminals, although these "pidyon shevuyim" causes are not my tzedakah of choice as I don't believe any of the cases presented obligate that I divert money from the little real tzedakah we are able to give after bills, tuition, and shul dues for pidyon shevuyin.

What I do have an issue with is lack of accountability and lack of introspection brought on by a Jewish media circus. In an attempt to create stories of inspiration and chizuk or in an attempt to promote being dan l'chaf zechut, lines of battles are being drawn in the sand between "them" and "us", and lost amongst the furvor are any opportunities for introspection and accountability. And in the case of Ms. Runge, giving her a platform to attack the prosecution and judges (an example here at Matzav), media--her own and Jewish media--has essentially aided and abetted in her sentencing, a sentencing that no doubt would have been much softer had she expressed only contrition and throwing herself at the mercy of the judge.

If the boys in Japan (ages 17, 19, and 22) were not at fault for accepting $1,000 each for agreeing to transport antiques in closed false bottom suitcases at the sum of $1,000 each (a sum that is being called "small" but for which is takes much effort and education for many a working person to net), then who is is at fault?

The Jewish media is busy talking about the lack of rachmanut present in the Japanese justice system and criticizing it full force (see Gil Student's article from 2009). While there are tehillim gatherings, speeches in shul, and emails being sent around listserves, I've yet to see someone in a position of "authority" talking about parenting, vocations, employment, poverty, or life outside of yeshiva.

The Japan case isn't the first case where frum boys acted as drug mules, nor will it be the last in there is no accountability. I can think of at least two other past cases, and in one the (non-frum) judge gave the parents of some 17 year old boys quite the mussar schmooze on parenting. If the boys share no fault, than certainly the parents and those who act in loco parentis share some responsibility? How do young, unmarried men (from impoverished families) make it out of Yeshiva without eyebrows raised, much less out of the country? I can barely make it out my front door without inquiries from the in-laws! When I was a teen, I could barely make it down the block unnoticed. I specifically remember one time where my *father* interrogated me about a T-Shirt I was wearing that he did not recognize.

Long overdue is some real accountability. [Cynicism warning: but all there seems to be are messages about tzniut].


23 comments:

tesyaa said...

If the boys share no fault, than certainly the parents and those who act in loco parentis share some responsibility? How do young, unmarried men (from impoverished families) make it out of Yeshiva without eyebrows raised, much less out of the country?

I can easily believe that in a culture with a more relaxed approach to parenting, coupled with the fact that parents of large families may be overwhelmed and unable to keep tabs on all their offspring, this is not a difficulty.

Anonymous said...

The aiding and abetting issue for the Runge case goes beyond providing a media platform.

Her shul in Minneapolis was soliciting funds and collecting money for her attorneys and defense fund. She and others asked that funds be ear-marked for hers. She posted that these donations would be tax deductible. The *shul* did the same on its main website. The same rabbi/community leadership consulted with Runge the entire way, through her experience, facilitating her delusional proclamations that this was all God's plan for her.

You probably know better than I do, but so far as I know, the IRS does NOT permit 501(c)(3)s to collect attorney fees for criminal defense for specific members as deductible charity.

I can't tell if it's ironic that the rabbi and community sought to assist Runge's defense against the fraud charges via tax fraud or if it's just sad.

Avi said...

I have no problem raising money privately to help convicted criminals, especially when they are given extremely heavy sentences for non-violent crimes. What bothers me are the public fundraising campaigns and shuls who put the morons in Japan in our tefillot alongside Gilad Shalit.

How did raising money for convicted criminals become a communal priority? My theory? Our Torah may require scrupulous adherence to the law, but our culture often values getting away with things because "they're out to get us" or "because I can." With that mindset, you can overlook any wrongdoing and focus just on "overly harsh punishment." I mean, come on, they were just trying to smuggle antiquities - they shouldn't have to go to jail where people speak Japanese and kosher food is hard to come by!

The problem is that this cultural mindset is dangerously wrong. The government of the U.S./Japan/Israel is not specifically out to get us, and honoring the spirit and the letter of the law is part of dina d'malchuta dina and/or v'asita ha'yashar v'hatov and/or creating a kiddush HaShem rather than a chilul HaShem. Raise your money in private. And if you get them out early, give them a hug, a warm meal, and an opportunity to say 'birkat hagomel,' not a hero's welcome.

JS said...

What we have here is a completely sick and backward culture that has set up a bunch of carnival mirrors so their twisted worldview appears straight and upright.

I wouldn't care so much if I didn't see this obscene mindset pervading all of Orthodoxy. You write about how they see the world as "us" versus "them" but to me it's increasingly "them" versus "some other them." I don't see these types of people as "us." I don't value what they value. They're completely foreign to me. They're Jews to me the way the Conservative and Reform are Jews to them (and I wouldn't be surprised if they only view Jews like myself as Jews for the purposes of soliciting donations).

Again, wouldn't care in the slightest if their values weren't infesting and infecting the rest of Orthodoxy.

When individuals who are part of a particular group of people do something terrible, there's often a call for that particular group to denounce the wrongdoers. To "prove" in a way that they are not complicit with the wrongdoers and don't approve of what was done. For example, if all Muslims or Arabs don't immediately condemn a terror attack in Israel, all Arabs and Muslims are suspect and complicit in many people's minds. Don't like that example? Then pick your own. So, where's the condemnation of this atrocious behavior in the Orthodox community? Where's the protesting? Where's the clarifications that these people don't represent us? You have a minority saying that. Instead, you have a loud majority raising funds, screaming anti-semitism, calling for prayers, writing articles, etc. If, in my example above, a small group of Arabs and Muslims condemned the terrorist while a loud majority called for prayers, called them martyrs, called for money for their families, what would people be saying?

Completely backwards. And that's not even getting into the myriads of other parts of this culture and value system that are twisted.

Chaya said...

Well how about investigating the issues before you talk, Mrs. Expert. In regards to the issue of Ms. Runge, why are you so sure she is guilty? Just because the courts said so??? Well, I hate to break it to you, there is corruption and human error taking place in the amreican justice system. I am not saying she is completely innocent, though from what I saw she seems innocent to me. What I am asking is why you are so sure to accept as fact what the courts are claiming. Let me inform you of something called the innocence project http://www.innocenceproject.org/.

In regards to the boys in Japan, the Japanese justice system has more issues than the American justice system. It is rare for someone to plead innocent. It is seen as arrogant to do so. That tells some of the issues with the system. The boys were too trusting of someone highly respected in their community. Think if you would be so quick to question if someone you trusted and respected would ask you to do something a bit weird. How fast would you turn that person down? And in general there are halachic issues here. Pidyon SHvuim in general applies when a Jew is imprisoned in non-jewish prisons, innocent or not.(I am not stating a psak, just the general idea.) And Pidyon Shvuim is a communal priority. There are certain things that communities are expected to give up if money is needed for pidyon shvuim.

Dave said...

Well, let's see, for one thing, she plead guilty.

For another, there was a full trial (the plea deal was reached at the end of the trial), so there is plenty of evidence to be viewed.

Here is one reference to such evidence, from the Des Moines Register:


"Hey baby," begins the communication from Polynation Pictures chief Wendy Weiner Runge in the message to partner Matthias Saunders.

A producer for the film "The Scientist," Saunders ran a company that was supposed to provide equipment for the 2008 film.

"I need a final Maximus ... invoice TOMORROW MORNING for $2.3 million in an odd, round number," Runge wrote. "Add it all up ... and make it look pretty."

The 11th-hour e-mail was written in mid-November 2008 - after filming on the movie had been completed.

Saunders anted up by adding more expenses to yet another invoice for in-kind services that prosecutors contend were imaginary and used to rake in already generous state tax-credit incentives.


Yeah, she was honest all right.

Look, they had her cold, and she plead guilty. And then, in a feat of stunning idiocy, she continued to insist that she was wrongly accused, and it was all anti-semitism, and then went to court and pretended to be contrite?

Contrition is a *big* part of sentencing reductions, and the Judge saw through her pretense. Someone explain to me again how we got the reputation for being a smart people?

As far as the boys, they absolutely are guilty -- they smuggled the drugs in. As far as their criminal intent, the Japanese seem to believe (and I think quite reasonably) that they either intended to smuggle (and I think they intended to smuggle antiques, not drugs), or that they deliberately turned a blind eye. In either case, they were caught committing a very serious crime. Frankly, the villains here are the drug dealer who hired them, and the parents and teachers who raised them. Perhaps if they had spent a little time teaching how an honest person does business, these young men would not be in this predicament.

Orthonomics said...

Well how about investigating the issues before you talk, Mrs. Expert. In regards to the issue of Ms. Runge, why are you so sure she is guilty? Just because the courts said so??? Well, I hate to break it to you, there is corruption and human error taking place in the amreican justice system. I am not saying she is completely innocent, though from what I saw she seems innocent to me. What I am asking is why you are so sure to accept as fact what the courts are claiming. Let me inform you of something called the innocence project http://www.innocenceproject.org/.

Chaya,

In my post I did not state either direction what I believe regarding her guilt or innocence. What I did address in my post is that a very vocal part of the kehillah is giving a very public platform to those who with to play the "race card" so to speak. I don't find the continually bashing of systems of justice, nor a lack of public introspection (given the public platform of accusations) to be very flattering.

I do happen to know something about falsifying invoices and documents. I've sadly been in the position to detecting and investigating discrepancies and fraud. The area is not new to me, even if I'm not an expert.

I don't need informed that there have been miscarriages of justice. There most certainly have been and will be. There most certainly will be corruption. But we can't cry wolf at every turn, nor should we base our communal identify on screaming wolf.

Orthonomics said...

The boys were too trusting of someone highly respected in their community. Think if you would be so quick to question if someone you trusted and respected would ask you to do something a bit weird. How fast would you turn that person down?

I've had to "lay down the law" plenty of times despite pressure and even threats. But I'm older than these boys, I've worked on this area, and my yetzer hara for a few extra bucks has lessened. I understand how these boys could end up in the pickle they are in. They are young, aren't savvy, likely have a higher risk tolerance, and probably wanted a change of pace. I know plenty of non-Jewish young men who have got caught up in the markets of the street. I also know that how they broke free was by taking responsibility and actively choosing a more (shall we say) conventional means of making an income.

But I'm not writing about young men getting caught in a pickle. It happens all the time and someone's individual battle with the yetzer hara isn't that newsworthy. What is newsworthy is the vocal segments of frum society that are putting on a very public and widespread PR campaign that involves criticism to be flung left and right, yet does not have even one iota of self-introspection (a very Jewish quality).

Orthonomics said...

Pidyon Shvuim is a communal priority. There are certain things that communities are expected to give up if money is needed for pidyon shvuim

And when the Rav in this community gives a psak that we should redirect our shul dues, tuition money, support of the mikvah, support for the poor in this community towards a criminal defense, we will listen.

sad said...

Living in a more RW neighborhood than you do, I found it sad that an evening to daven for Reb Sholom Mordechai gets rabbonim, askanim, etc, yet no one called for an evening to daven for Gilad.

And since Wendy is a woman making movies, she's got two strikes against her!

rosie said...

How do non-Jews pay for criminal defense? I have never seen a communal appeal for non-Jewish criminals. Do churches raise money for their members who are facing trials? Although there may be a Jewish communal responsibility of pideon shvuiim, there is no real communal disbursement of funds anymore. Years ago, a gabbai parnassa was in charge of gathering and distributing funds but now, everyone is on his own to decide how much to give or whether to give a cause and individuals don't always act as a community.
In the case of the Israeli bochrim in Japan, out of 15 boys who were approached, only these 3 decided to go. I wonder why the other 12 decided not to go to Japan. Were they more honest, more afraid, or just too busy and disinterested?
In both the Runge case and the boys in Japan, the judges were trying to make examples out of them as a deterrent to others. Hopefully others will catch on.

Orthonomics said...

You probably know better than I do, but so far as I know, the IRS does NOT permit 501(c)(3)s to collect attorney fees for criminal defense for specific members as deductible charity.

Anonymous, the issue of charitable contributions and their deductibility can be complicated. How a campaign for a specific person is started can have implications on deductibility. The nitty gritty is on my list of things I'd like to read more about.

JS said...

SephardiLady,

I'm not sure why you don't take a stronger stance. Not to pick on Chaya, but it's this whole "who says they're guilty in the first place" attitude that leads to the rest of this craziness.

Honestly, it makes me sick to hear the kind of stuff Chaya says. You believe in the innocence project? Really? Truly? Can I ask how much money you've donated to them? Are you even aware of a single case they're currently involved in? Do you even know their primary work involves exoneration through DNA evidence? I assume you're heavily involved in getting non-Jews who are being unjustly held behind bars freed as well, right? Are you even involved in getting Jews (frum or not) who aren't the latest "cause celebre" freed?

This worldview is twisted and the people who espouse it are a bunch of hypocrites who will jump any bandwagon the "gedolim" tell them to without a moment's reflection or thought.

A person knowingly commits a crime and is given a sentence within the sentencing guidelines. Where exactly is the injustice? I'm simply not seeing it. Because they're Jews they should get a pass? A get out of jail free card? Again, where's the miscarriage of justice in a person getting their just deserts? You commit a crime, you get caught, you get punished. It's very simple. Why the outrage?

What's next? Tehilim when the local rav gets a parking ticket?

Mandy said...

If Runge were Catholic, no one would question the judge's decision. She committed a crime, mouthed off against the system (thus hurting her own case) and actually did admit that she did it! It's as simple as that.

Yet because she's JEWISH...oh, no, let's just forget all of the above!! Jews aren't supposed to be held to the same standard as everyone else, the courts should go easier on them!

Pathetic. Oddly enough, I'm more bothered by that attitude than by the actual crime. People commit crimes, no matter what religion they are. It's a human thing, albeit a bad thing. But when a huge swath of Jews try to excuse this behavior, it's sickening.

By the way, I wonder if she'll wear her wig in jail. You know, the wig she wears because she's supposedly so "religious", the wig she wore while breaking the law.

I was quite shocked to find out who this was because I actually went to school with Runge, and she was always so moral and wouldn't do anything wrong or against the law. I guess people change.

Ariella said...

I am afraid I am scratching my head. If Ms. Runge is from Minneapolis, why was she allegedly swiping funds from Iowa?

I also can't help but wonder if in light of the Rubashkin kerfluffle, the state of Iowa is just screaming "enough already!"

rosie said...

Maybe someday someone will start a frum organization for the moral education of frum people. For starters, it could instruct people not to do anyone any favors when crossing international borders. Look at what happened to poor Rabbi Hecht from Israel who was old and naive and believed that all he was bringing into Spain was a suitcase of necessities for someone from his host in Costa Rica. Those necessities were drugs and the poor stymied rabbi spent 4 month in a Spanish jail and a huge amount of money in defense. He really had believed that the people who hosted him were good people who would never commit a crime and he honestly thought that he was bringing in something that only had value to the recipient.

Anonymous said...

This is a very important post on a variety of levels. There is an external Chillul Hashem in terms of the message that such appeals convey to the nations of the world. This is especially the case when the anti-Semitism card is played. There is an internal Chillul Hashem as it relates to post hoc rewarding bad or illegal behavior by the appeals preying on fellow Jews’ rachmanut to give towards emergency campaigns.

One common theme that sometimes cuts across individual and public appeals is that there is no substitute for the concept of earning a living, in an honest way. If unforeseen circumstances arise, then that should be taken into account. But, it bothers me when we are asked to bail out individuals and organizations that face problems as a result of poor decisions, lack of planning for an honest and independent income, or illegal behavior.

An important lesson that we should take from these incidents is that people should start to sharpen one’s focus regarding Tzedaka and charitable giving. Especially when financial resources are tight as a result of the economy, it is incumbent on everyone to consider more objective rather than emotional factors whether giving $1 or $100,000. The objective factors should include:

Prioritizing locally- While the world is a smaller place, with families divided over different states and even countries, charity begins at home. Fundraisers actively try to poach and leverage relationships beyond the scope of their institution or cause. But, when people give even a dollar, they should first consider whether the local shuls are funded and the teachers in the schools are adequately compensated. People should resist the “flashy” causes out-of-town until local institutions are supported. Unfortunately, there are many professional fundraisers out there who are savvy at “poaching” funds from other communities, leveraging alumni and other relationships. While these relationships are in fact grounds for legitimate approaching of donors, especially since we live in a world where people are transient, community leadership should ensure that charity begins at home.

Institutional priority- We have seen a rise in ad hoc appeals for individuals or small groups of individuals. The communication age can easily bring any case to a national audience almost instantly, with a sense of emergency of one level or another.

Accountability- Who is collecting the money for the cause? How much of the funds are really reaching the target? Is the target worthy of funds? Is the cause truly “communal” or is it one which lacks transparency and is fraught with nepotism, making it in fact a family business.

It is also incumbent on Rabbis and community leaders to be more careful in lending their names or endorsements to causes. Instead of naively acquiescing to a cause because in theory it qualifies as Tzedaka, they should also attend to each of the factors above, most importantly, prioritizing locally.

What we need is to keep up our enthusiasm for giving to worthy causes. The challenge is to avoid cynicism, while maintaining the requisite level of skepticism especially for ad hoc causes that are new and without an established track record of credibility.

The moral of the story is that not all Tzedaka is created equal. And before people give any amount, thought should be given towards making informed giving decisions.

Mike S. said...

rosie said...

Maybe someday someone will start a frum organization for the moral education of frum people. For starters, it could instruct people not to do anyone any favors when crossing international borders. Look at what happened to poor Rabbi Hecht from Israel who was old and naive and believed that all he was bringing into Spain was a suitcase of necessities for someone from his host in Costa Rica. Those necessities were drugs and the poor stymied rabbi spent 4 month in a Spanish jail and a huge amount of money in defense. He really had believed that the people who hosted him were good people who would never commit a crime and he honestly thought that he was bringing in something that only had value to the recipient.


If such an institution were truly necessary, every yeshivah should be shut down. How can one teach Torah without moral education? My experience is that the lack of moral instruction is not the primary problem. Of course, sometimes people succumb to the temptation to do immoral things, among religious Jews as among every other grouping. And that will always be the case.

What I do see as more problematic, and a product of how our children are sometimes taught to view the world is the tendency to disbelieve that others in "our group" can behave immorally and to circle the wagons when one of "ours" is accuse or even convicted. This is something we should fight against, and we need to always remind our children that Jews aren't better than anyone else--we are commanded to make our behavior better than anyone else's.

Anonymous said...

Response to above poster about giving tzedakah locally - I remember well as a child my father's annoyance to receive a mailed solicitation from a midwestern day school. He said, "They should go to their own community! We have our own schools!"

But what if you live in an area where everyone is wealthy? I think it's appropriate in that case to give to out of town schools where family members teach or attend. My niece's school in a Southern community is having a walk-a-thon to raise money and her mother's huge email list has apparently been supplied to the fundraiser, along with appropriate salutations (Aunt, Grandma). So the school is "poaching" on territory beyond their own community. But in my community, everyone I see is wealthy, far wealthier than I am!

Another point in my tzedakah calculus is that a member of my family teaches at the non-local school, and I therefore feel it's appropriate for me to support it.

Anonymous said...

The boys going into Japan really were naive, I am sure they had no idea they were smuggling anything. That said, nobody should ever take anything for anyone (unless it is like, your mother) without declaring it, "Hi, someone asked me to take this suitcase for them as a favor, I don't know what's in it." And tell the person you are taking it for that you will be declaring it. I really do believe the boys were innocent in the yes of the Creator, though they did commit a crime. That said, if they were so innocent, why are they never referred to int he Jewish news by their names, if they were so innocent, what is there to be ashamed of? So I think the Jewish papers realize they were in the wrong...
In the Runge case, the State of Iowa really just opened themselves up for theft - or maybe not, since they seem to have caught the people scamming the system. She said she is guilty, so let's assume she is. She still should not go to jail for 10 years, when rapists and child abusers (worse crimes) walk after a couple of years. And a judge should not punish people on the basis of whether they said "sorry" or not, or anything they say -- the question is punishment for a crime, and those punishments should be fair for all, not shorter for those who are good actors and say they are sorry.

Mark said...

tesyaa - I can easily believe that in a culture with a more relaxed approach to parenting, coupled with the fact that parents of large families may be overwhelmed and unable to keep tabs on all their offspring, this is not a difficulty.

For boys out of the house and living in (or even just attending) yeshiva, their Rosh Yeshiva doesn't even allow them to walk down the main streets of the center of town (say Ben Yehuda in Yerushalaim or 5'th Avenue in NYC). Yet someone wants us to believe that the Rosh Yeshiva (or the parents) would allow them free rein to travel overseas without thoroughly investigating all the circumstances and details?

JRKmommy said...

Yes, I do know what it's like to be approached by people in the community and asked to do a favor involving "harmless bending of rules". I've said no.

Has there been public discussion of the need to educate youth about the dangers of fraud, the possibility of being duped by unscrupulous people, the need to take responsibility for one's actions?

I find the focus on tznius campaigns particularly ironic. Judging others by external markings of frumkeit seems to be exactly what got these boys in to trouble in the first place.

Critiquer said...

"I found it sad that an evening to daven for Reb Sholom Mordechai gets rabbonim, askanim, etc, yet no one called for an evening to daven for Gilad."

If you found it sad, why don't YOU organize an evening on behalf of Gilad Shalit? Why are you waiting for someone else to do it?

Friends and relatives of Rubashkin make gatherings on his behalf. Where are the friends and relatives of Gilad Shalit? Are you one of them? So do something.